Who Says? Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling

Who Says? Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling edited by Carol L. Birch and Melissa A. Heckler. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1996. ISBN 0-87483-454-6 (pb) $16.95 0-87483-453-8 (hc) $26.95 221 pp.

I asked myself, before reviewing this book, what I thought some of the issues in storytelling are. A few came readily to mind: ownership of stories/story stealing; the difference between storytelling and oral interpretation; and the basis for critical evaluation of storytelling. That last question is one with which I grapple daily in my work as a reviewer.

Who Says deals with these issues and more in a way that provides models, rather than answers, thus inviting dialogue among tellers and providing a vocabulary for that discussion. The ten contributors are almost all storytellers, but they also bring with them their expertise as anthropologists, folklorists, writers, musicians, educators, and librarians. You will recognize many of their names: Joe Bruchac, Rafe Martin, Barre Toelken, Peninnah Schram, Bill Harley, Joseph Sobol, and Kay Stone.

Editors Birch and Heckler, who are also contributors, asked the question, "What are the aesthetics of story telling?" That question, they say in the introduction, gave birth to many other questions. The reader is invited to consider contemporary storytelling. It has its roots in the oral tradition, of course, but also in the literary tradition. Add to that the interdisciplinary influences of theatre, music, dance, librarianship, motivational speaking etc. brought to the stage by tellers and there is quite a mix. How, then, does one evaluate the tellers/events? We tend now to use the existing standards of theatre, print, music. This collection takes the first step in the quest to develop an aesthetic and ethic unique to storytelling. The tone and style of the 10 essays vary from scholarly to more accessible as they deal with such issues as the conflicting value systems between oral and print cultures (Heckler); the challenge of transferring the performance aspects of a folktale to the printed page (Schram); and the cultural context of orally told stories (Bruchac).

To coldly list the themes and issues disused does not do justice to what is a vibrant and engrossing collection. The essays provide insights and ideas for personal reflection and group discussion. Over and over, readers are called to discover and respect the depth and cultural complexity of stories. Carol Birch urges us to give up trying to be someone else, or trying to be invisible as tellers and make use of ourselves as our most basic resource. Bill Harley's essay urges tellers to recognize the concept of the fourth wall between teller and audience and play with it, thus creating a dynamic and varied performance. Joseph Sobol sees contemporary telling as an amalgamation of the oral tradition and of literature in performance.

You may not agree with the approaches and opinions of all the essayists. Indeed, they do not always agree with each other. But you will be sparked to analyze, consider, even debate. The challenges to a storyteller are many, and this book reminds us of the responsibility of each teller to examine and meet those challenges in order to meet the needs of the story, audience and teller.

As the reader moves from essay to essay, the editors weave a connecting thread through the collection by their introductions to each piece, deftly relating the essay to others in the collection and commenting on its significance of the whole. This is a book I will return to again and again. Many thanks to Birch and Heckler and their contributors or this first step in dealing with critical issues in the field of storytelling.

The Second Story Review, Vol 1, No. 4, December 1996

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